The night I heard about 18-year-old Nia Wilson being brutally and fatally attacked at a train station a few miles from me, I didn’t sleep. I read with horror about a man violently stabbing her without provocation. I thought about her family. I thought, too, about my own 18-year-old daughter, who is a woman of color, like Nia, and started riding Bay Area Rapid Transit alone when she was in eighth grade.
My daughter has often felt scared to ride the train. I’ve been deeply conflicted about how to balance her need for independence with my concerns for her safety.
MacArthur station, where Wilson was attacked, is the same platform where my daughter transfers between trains, rushing across the platform to the next train as the doors open. It is the station where I used to catch the train to San Francisco every morning when I was a single mom commuting to the financial district, waiting in the crowd and trying to stay aware of my surroundings.
Although I didn’t know Wilson personally, I know her. Like so many mothers and daughters around the country, I’m shaken and horrified. I’m a white woman, so strangers often don’t realize I’m her mother, and I’ve witnessed how they watch her. I worry that she’s more vulnerable in the world than I am. When I hear a story like this, about Nia, my mind goes to all the terrible places.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a tweet on July 23: “We all mourn in this moment and we will work together to bring justice to Nia, her sister, and her family.”
Yes, we are mourning. Meanwhile, what can we do to keep young women safe?
For years, men have harassed my daughter on the train platform. I’ve tried to encourage her to ignore them, to wait near a group of women, to ask for help. I’ve done my best to put on a brave face for her.
But I’ve worried. I still worry.
At one point, my daughter was so anxious she started to panic before heading to the train station. What if someone wouldn’t leave her alone? Would anyone help? I was grateful when a friend suggested our daughters take a self-defense workshop together.
“Avoidance is a self-defense strategy,” says Joyce Mende Wong, a director and instructor at Hand to Hand Kajukenbo Self Defense Center in Oakland. “Intuition, what we feel in our gut, provides signals. When there is engagement, however, we employ verbal and/or physical skills to help to disengage. We practice physical techniques to use when verbal directions are disrespected or ignored or when a situation becomes dangerous.”
That workshop helped my daughter feel more confident. Still, I’ve worried.
One night when our daughter was taking a train home late, my husband reminded me that she’s an adult and she needs to learn how to get around independently. I shook my head. “She’s my baby.”
I reached out to BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost, who’d posted a photo July 24 of herself commuting on BART with her two children, saying, “I’m a woman with young kids and I tweeted this to show that I bring my young children on the train.”
Here are some practical tips she and Wong shared about how to stay safe while riding public transportation in any city that I will share with my daughter. It may not have helped Nia Wilson. It may not help everyone. But it is something I can try to control in this world that often feels uncontrollable.
Always ride in the first car of the train. “The first car is where the train operator sits, so you’re close to someone who could help. Also, the first car is furthest the point from the exit in the station. I’ve talked to female cops and they all say this,” Trost says.
When you’re waiting for a train, don’t stand near the escalator or stairs. “Again, this is about waiting for the first car, where the exits and entries are further away.”
Take note of your car’s number, which, on BART trains, should be posted above the rear door of each car. In the event of an incident, you’ll have that number to help investigators search for surveillance video. Trost adds, “This lets you send a message to dispatch. You can say, ‘I’m on car #__, I was just groped … or someone is being harassed on this car.’ ”
Take a seat deep in the train, instead of near the exit. “I’ve . . . seen women in the priority seating section right near the train door with a purse on their lap,” Trost says. “They’re not holding onto it, so it’s easy for someone to take it and make a quick exit.”
Download your train’s smartphone security app. I did some research while writing this story, and most major cities with extensive train service offer apps to report transit-related crimes.
Stay off your phone, both on the platform and when the train stops at stations. “It’s fine to pull out your phone once you’re seated on the train, but when the train stops, I tuck my phone under my armpit and wait until the train door opens and closes again,” Trost says.
Carry a bag or purse that closes. Backpacks are ideal because they strap over both shoulders if you’re standing, making it more difficult to steal them. If you’re sitting, you can secure one of the straps around your arm. “Someone can slip a hand into an open bag or purse,” Trost says.
When you’re entering/exiting a station, gravitate toward a group of women. “For the most part, you can trust other women,” Trost says. “This is something I do when I’m riding at night.”
Stay alert. “Be aware of your surroundings,” Wong says. “For instance: Is there an exit? Did different people enter? Is it too crowded for you? Too deserted? Do you feel comfortable? Is someone acting strange? Did you lose sight of the person(s) you came with? Is there a change in how the crowd is behaving? Do you hear things you don’t want to hear? Is someone making you feel uneasy? Take the action that is appropriate for you.”
Stay awake on the train. “I know that you can get exhausted, but falling asleep is dangerous,” Trost says, because when you’re not awake, you’re more vulnerable to an attack.
We can’t live in fear. Young women need to feel confident and independent as they move through the world. I’m searching for hope as a shield against future attacks. What are the rest of us doing to keep our daughters safe?
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